HER2 oncogenic function escapes EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors via activation of alternative HER receptors in breast cancer cells.
Kong A., Calleja V., Leboucher P., Harris A., Parker PJ., Larijani B.
BACKGROUND: The response rate to EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) may be poor and unpredictable in cancer patients with EGFR expression itself being an inadequate response indicator. There is limited understanding of the mechanisms underlying this resistance. Furthermore, although TKIs suppress the growth of HER2-overexpressing breast tumor cells, they do not fully inhibit HER2 oncogenic function at physiological doses. METHODOLOGY AND PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Here we have provided a molecular mechanism of how HER2 oncogenic function escapes TKIs' inhibition via alternative HER receptor activation as a result of autocrine ligand release. Using both Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) which monitors in situ HER receptor phosphorylation as well as classical biochemical analysis, we have shown that the specific tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) of EGFR, AG1478 and Iressa (Gefitinib) decreased EGFR and HER3 phosphorylation through the inhibition of EGFR/HER3 dimerization. Consequent to this, we demonstrate that cleavage of HER4 and dimerization of HER4/HER2 occur together with reactivation of HER3 via HER2/HER3, leading to persistent HER2 phosphorylation in the now resistant, surviving cells. These drug treatment-induced processes were found to be mediated by the release of ligands including heregulin and betacellulin that activate HER3 and HER4 via HER2. Whereas an anti-betacellulin antibody in combination with Iressa increased the anti-proliferative effect in resistant cells, ligands such as heregulin and betacellulin rendered sensitive SKBR3 cells resistant to Iressa. CONCLUSIONS AND SIGNIFICANCE: These results demonstrate the role of drug-induced autocrine events leading to the activation of alternative HER receptors in maintaining HER2 phosphorylation and in mediating resistance to EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) in breast cancer cells, and hence specify treatment opportunities to overcome resistance in patients.